Well what a fantastic year it has been in the British Innovation Gateway (BIG) programme — Cisco’s initiative to discover, support, and accelerate innovation and growth amongst tech-based “start ups” across the UK.

We started the year with the objective of achieving a minimum of 3 things – running another successful BIG Awards competition in 2013, opening our Innovation Centre in the Shoreditch district of London, and hitting critical mass with the National Virtual Incubator. But as we come to the end of 2013, it is clear we have achieved so much more!

Things kicked off in January when I joined several hundred like-minded people at the great Spigit Innovation Summit (SIS 2013) in Dana Point, California and we presented a keynote on the BIG programme and how it sits at the centre of our London 2012 Olympic Legacy. It was fantastic to share the stage with such inspirational leaders and speakers as Sir Ken Robinson (a TED veteran) and Paul Pluschkell, founder and CEO of Spigit (now Spigit Mindjet), not to mention many of their leading Innovation customers such as Citibank and Novartis who also took part.

Innovation and collaboration

In February the focus shifted to the National Virtual Incubator (NVI) and it was great to really get out around the country and see first-hand what great innovation and business incubation initiatives there are all over the UK. During February we travelled to Manchester Media City and Manchester University to finalise them joining the NVI, a network that connects start-ups, entrepreneurs, and experts in business development. In April we visited Scotland to see the great investment that is going into Glasgow and Strathclyde University in their new Technology Innovation Centre and Industry Engagement Centre, and at IDEAScotland in Dundee, where we attended the official opening of the centre and met some of the great start-ups working there in the gaming sector. It is easy to see now why Grand Theft Auto has so many Scottish references given it has its earliest roots in Dundee and Edinburgh!

During the course of the year it was amazing to travel the length and breadth of the country to meet some of the amazing talent that is out there – we met with Cambridge University, Swansea University, York Science Park, Sunderland Software City, Innovation Birmingham, Coventry University (in the snow), Sheffield University, Bradford University, and Surrey University, all of which have some tremendous initiatives/organisations centred on innovation and entrepreneurship. We are delighted that many of these are now members of the NVI network, which, during the course of 2013, reached its initial goal of 12 core nodes covering the length and breadth of the UK, and many differing areas of expertise – health, gaming, media, renewable energies, biotech, pure tech, smart cities an sensors to name a few.

IDEALondon opens its doors

Having donned hard hats for many, many months, In October we finally opened our new innovation space in Tech City called IDEALondon, a partnership between Cisco, DC Thomson, and University College London (UCL). It is the hub of our Cisco BIG programme and one of the most connected innovation centres in London. It enables each partner to champion start-ups for 6 to 12 months in a state-of-the-art accelerator space and provides a comprehensive programme including mentorship, business support, and access to industry.

The first start-ups moved in on 30 September and we could not have asked for a more innovative, committed, inspiring, and likeable bunch of organisations to be working with in Snap Fashion, Wittos, The Social Gaming Company, Sparkl, Sibdocity, Smartzer, and Apptual.

The ultimate recognition for what we are trying to achieve at IDEALondon came on 6 December when Prime Minister David Cameron came and officially opened the centre and also celebrated the 3rd anniversary of the Tech City initiative with many other ministers and senior leaders. The Prime Minister spoke eloquently about the life and inspiration of Nelson Mandela (who had just died the night before) and how supporting the tech sector and entrepreneurship and innovation across the UK is starting to bear fruit in terms of job creation. The tech sector accounts for more than a 1/3 of all new jobs created in the capital — the highlight for me was that the PM got to sit down with our start-ups and hear first-hand what they are doing.

Phil Smith, Cisco senior vice president for UK and Ireland  and Prime Minister David Cameron at IDEALondon
UK Prime Minister David Cameron (center) attended the official opening of IDEALondon

We have had so many good events and visitors at IDEALondon — too many to mention here — but they have included the City of Barcelona, the South Korean Government, Tesco’s, and Burberry to name but a few…

The BIG Awards

March saw the launch of the BIG Awards 2013 at the top of the Gherkin building in London, where we gathered the great and the good from the tech world for the launch party. Those who attended heard some great insights from Phil Smith, Cisco senior vice president for UK and Ireland and chair of the Technology Strategy Board, and Stephen Mason, a serial entrepreneur who talked about the challenges young innovators and entrepreneurs will face and the mindset it takes to overcome them. Attendees also got some inspiring updates from our 2012 BIG Award winners — Jenny Griffiths from Snap Fashion and Alastair Paterson from Digital Shadows — in terms of the great progress they were making and the support they were getting from Cisco and our partners through the BIG Awards programme.

The Gherkin in London
The Gherkin in London

It has been great to see the journey that Snap Fashion and Digital Shadows have been on this past 12 months; the amount of success they have had in such a short time is truly an inspiration to us all. For me the standout moments have been Jenny being nominated for a Woman of the Future award in the entrepreneurship category, and also being in the Retail Week ”Ones To Watch” listing adjacent to Christopher Bailey no less, new CEO of Burberry.  Now that’s recognition, but even that was probably eclipsed by her opportunity to demonstrate Snap Fashion and Snap Colour Pop, their latest offering, to our Prime Minister David Cameron whilst he visited IDEALondon only 3 weeks ago, and she has a pilot for her business in Singapore.

The Digital Shadows guys have gone to new heights (literally), migrating to Level 39, Europe’s largest accelerator space, in January as part of the Accenture Fintech programme. They have also expanded their team to 12 people and hit new heights with their recognition by Gartner as Cool Vendor 2013 and a Mashable Award as one of the Top 25 UK Start Ups for 2013.

In August, the judges selected the 20 semi-finalists, who we then invited to a Meet Your Mentor event at the very cool Hospital Club in the Covent Garden section of London. It was really good to finally meet the contestants face to face for the first time and I think they all benefited from the tips they picked up from the BIG team, our partners, and our previous winners. Who would be selected for the final in November?

Phil Smith with Richard Hall,  Director of DC Thomson and  UCL Professor Stephen Smith speaking at IDEALondon on the preview evening event
Phil Smith with Richard Hall, Director of DC Thomson and UCL Professor Stephen Smith speaking at IDEALondon on the preview evening event

Finally my own personal favourite moment of the year was the BIG Awards Final 2013 because it brings together all the aspects of what the BIG programme is about in one place – innovation, inspiration, talent, and fun. This year we held the awards finals at IDEALondon for the first time – the fun element came from the Twitter campaign that we launched to introduce the contestants to the judges one by one – great to see the judges represented as finger puppets and truly innovative from the team who created the campaign.


The event featured our six finalists – Actual Experience, Whisk, uMotif, Presence Orb, Bleep Bleeps, and Supa Dupa. Each contestant gave a 10-minute pitch. After a tough battle and some tough questions and decisions by the judges, uMotif emerged as the winner, taking home the BIG cheque for $100,000 and 12 months of mentoring from Cisco and partners. Whisk was 2nd and Actual Experience was 3rd.

Tom Kneen, Head of BIG – representatives from BIG Awards 2013 winners Umotif and Phil Smith, Cisco senior vice president for  Cisco UK and Ireland
Tom Kneen, Head of BIG; representatives from BIG Awards 2013 winners Umotif; and Phil Smith, Cisco senior vice president for Cisco UK and Ireland

As we close out the year and near the 3rd anniversary of BIG, it is good to reflect on how far the programme has come since its launch in January 2011 by Cisco CEO John Chambers and David Cameron. It is really good to see the adoption of a more Tech UK/Tech Country approach evolving, as it is the only approach that will truly harness the fullest potential the UK can offer and ensure that there is sustainability in this tech-led innovation drive across the UK.

Since its launch, the Cisco BIG programme has directly or indirectly supported and accelerated more than 150 start-up businesses across the UK. We have brought together more than 20 BIG innovation partners centred on 4 core initiatives – the BIG Awards, The National Virtual Incubator, IDEALondon, and our research facility at the Greenwich Innovation Hub – and for that we can and should be really proud.


Tom Kneen

Business Development Manager, CTO Office, UKI

GEO - Sales UKI Mgmt